Paul Lambert is a stroppy little whatsit, isn’t he? I love him for it. His pugnacious, confrontational behaviour on his return to Colchester United provided a real insight into his character.
He was unapologetically combative from the start, pointedly acknowledging the cheering ranks of City fans as soon as he came out, before greeting the inevitable boos from home supporters with a cheery wave.
Remember, he did not know what would follow that brassy bravado. A Colchester win would have made it pride before a fall. Other managers might have been placatory at that stage, or at least a little more discreet.
But he brazenly enjoyed the moment. After all, as he said after the game, he played for Celtic.
And (as he didn’t say after the game) after surviving and thriving in Britain’s most violently partisan city, he was not going to be discombobulated by a few thousand slightly excitable Col U fans, most of whom hadn’t been near the club for decades.
Then, when the goals started thumping in, Lambert celebrated each and every one of them extravagantly and visibly.
It wasn’t very gracious, perhaps. And I know I’ve spent a good few years extolling the virtues of Norwich being an upright, socially responsible club. But seeing our manager being a not-particularly-good winner was much more fun than all those seasons of trying to be a good loser.
After the match, when he came back out onto the sodden pitch to talk to the media, a knot of home supporters were hanging about to give him some more verbals.
There were half a dozen of them. Some were only lads of about 14, but their dads were there as well. One of the boys leaned over the wall of the tunnel and called Lambert a Scotch something or other. His dad smirked. Charming.
Neither stewards nor any other Colchester officials did anything to prevent this abuse, although football club safety certificates require lurking spectators to be asked to leave.
Lambert looked ready to give them a Glaswegian response. Again, he relished the confrontation. You have got to love him, haven’t you?
But, paradoxically, he is not so strong-headed that he cannot admit mistakes. Gary Doherty and Wes Hoolahan have reason to be pleased about that, and so do all of us who have cheered their exploits this season.
The Doc, bless him, was like a rabbit in the headlights in that first game of the season against Lambert’s Colchester. Then at Brentford, when the newly-appointed Lambert was watching from the stand but had not intervened in team selection, the Doc had one of those games when the ball shanks off his shin, or cannons off his head in the wrong direction.
So Lambert decided the Doc should ply his trade elsewhere, and told him so. It is a formidable tribute to the Doc that he proceeded to prove Lambert wrong, but it is just as impressive that Lambert allowed him to do so.
Similarly, Lambert has been big enough to realise he was mistaken about little Wes. In the home defeat by Colchester, Hoolahan operated (in theory) as the left-sided player of an orthodox midfield four.
Lambert was obviously not impressed, because for the first Norwich team he selected (for the home match against Wycombe), Hoolahan was only a sub.
He started in the one-sided Cup defeat at home to Sunderland but then didn’t feature again for a month.
“Shows you how much I know, doesn’t it?” said Lambert, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour when his early season attitude towards Doherty and Hoolahan was pointed out. You really do have to love him, don’t you?
So I hope City fans enjoy the buzz of winning so emphatically and with such élan. Wallow in it. And remember it when things start to go less fantastically well. Lambert knows that Norwich cannot and will not win for ever.
Tellingly, he keeps slipping in little hints, such as “We’re giving the fans something back at the moment” and, “Our crowd can be a fantastic help when they are behind the team.”
He has, after all, seen Carrow Road turn on one of its own. He was there when those two muppets threw their season tickets at Bryan Gunn and tasted the poisonous atmosphere that day.
In the Championship, if we get there, Grant Holt’s lack of acceleration might be a handicap. We are unlikely to have the increasingly assured Fraser Forster in goal. We will play better teams than Colchester.
But if we start to struggle a tad, that won’t mean Lambert has “lost the plot” or that “he can’t take us to the next level”. Every club has some fans who see everything in simple, binary terms. A player is either brilliant or cr*p. A manager is either a genius or a disaster.
The world is more complicated than that; more nuanced. Everyone has flaws as well as strengths. I think it is a cause for profound sadness that all that Gunny did over so many years is forgotten by some and that he is vilified on message boards.
Lambert knows that, someday, it could happen to him. Let’s all hope it is a long, long way away.
OTHER MATTERS ARISING:
1) The media instruction sheet told me I must call Colchester’s ground The Weston Homes Community Stadium. They are fed up with it being called The Community Stadium, apparently. I intend to solve the problem by not mentioning it again.
2) The attendance of 10064 meant that there were only eight empty seats – all of them positions for disabled spectators. A reconfiguration of one area has reduced the capacity from the 10083 shown in various reference books to 10071.
3) The attendance was the biggest for a League game at Colchester for 42 years. They’ll never have that many again unless we go there in a cup.
4) The pitch was not playable. In other circumstances, referee Mike Dean’s 2pm inspection would have led to a postponement. I am told the referee’s assessor raised his eyebrows when Dean gave the go-ahead. But at the safety briefing, Dean had been told how fraught things might come if fans were turned away.
5) The ball boy who refused to give his towel to City players to wipe the ball before throw-ins was breaking League rules. Aidy Boothroyd walked along the touchline and told the lad not to be so biased. But at half-time Dean intervened and, following guidelines, told Colchester that as the boy had been one-sided, nobody should use towels.
6) Aidy is a lovely chap. But he was not offered the Norwich job when Glenn Roeder was sacked, despite suggesting that he didn’t take it because the contract was only until the end of the season. Delia adores the man, but not the style of football his teams play.
7) The Essex County Standard’s pre-match edition had an ungrammatical back page headline (an apostrophe was the wrong way around) and an extraordinarily bellicose piece by the chairman of the Colchester United Supporters’ Association. He said he had no respect for men like Lambert. But it can’t be easy typing in the phone box during a meeting of the Colchester United Supporters’ Association.
8) On the club’s official website, Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling says City fans were right to chant that he is a w*nker. Perhaps he thought he was being funny. But many a true word is spoken in jest. On their message boards, Colchester fans are chastising him for making them cringe with his statement.
9) On Ipswich Weekly, or whatever Matt Holland’s new Monday night show on BBC East is called, we learned that, when he was Colchester manager, Lambert halved the size of the away dressing room and had it painted a depressing colour.
10) Colchester and City are still “six figures apart” in their assessments of what compensation we should pay them for Lambert. Whatever the final figure is, he is more than worth it.